Montana Voices: Special session needed to address state budget shortfall

My legislative email is blowing up with desperate messages from Montanans pleading for a special legislative session to save our essential public services.

Mary Ann Dunwell

These are heartfelt, tearful cries for help from people with disabilities and mental illness, seniors, child care workers, parents, public school teachers, counselors, university professors, students, direct care workers, health care providers, public sector employees, friends and neighbors.

Their voices come from every corner of our state and reflect the Montana we know and love — the Montana that truly cares about our neighbors. I call on my colleagues in the Republican majority to be that Montana now.

We Montanans always reach out to help communities that suffer losses from wildfires or other natural disasters. The state budget crisis with severe cuts is a human disaster that demands that same help and emergency response.

The buck stops here. It’s the Legislature’s responsibility to restore revenues so government can do its job of serving the public. Don’t put it on the governor or state agency directors. Under the law, they have no choice but to cut if the Legislature does nothing.

The public will be the biggest loser. Businesses won’t get permits and licenses, public health and safety will be threatened, people will lose care — some will lose their lives — and the people who care for them will lose their livelihoods. This is not just a Capital City crisis. Communities statewide will feel the pain.

So let’s get to work. Convene a special session to restore revenues through additional sources and tax policy tweaks. Tourists enjoy our marvelous Montana and they can help chip in for its well-being. Other course correctors include fund transfers and nudging down the state’s ending fund balance goal, while keeping a safety net of dollars.

Let’s be clear, these revenue losses, proposed further cuts, and the millions of dollars we already cut out of state public services are a direct result of years of policies that favored corporations and the superrich at the expense of Montana’s hard-working families. Sure, the wildest wildfire year ever cost us something, but let’s look at the long game.

Rewind to 2003 and Senate Bill 407, a so-called tax reform law purported to grow revenue and jobs, and draw business and industry to Montana. Turns out that SB 407 served up a decade of tax treats for the super-wealthy. Economic reports now show this to be a failed policy for everyone but the big boys. It did not help the labor market or attract business to Montana. It did cost our state billions of dollars in lost revenue. Big oil, big corporations, big industry, big tobacco, big everything thrived. Montana’s hardworking families struggled. We need to reverse that failed policy.

So here we are facing devastating public service cuts. This, after the 2017 Legislature already cut millions of dollars with House Bill 2 and the Senate Bill 261 trigger bill. The Montana Constitution guarantees dignity and equality of opportunity. With the most extreme cuts yet to come, people will be denied that constitutional guarantee.

I urge people to keep speaking out. Flood legislators’ phones and emails. Weigh in at http://balancedbudget.mt.gov/. This is not a Democratic or Republican problem, it’s a Montana crisis. Let’s come together and respond to this human disaster as the Montana we know and love.

Mary Ann Dunwell is a Democrat and represents House District 84, Helena/East Helena in the Montana State Legislature. You can reach her at rep.maryann.dunwell@mt.gov